Reviewing the Erosion of Spiritual Authority

The course of beliefs progressively weakening spiritual authority

For historical background to this page, please review Spiritual Authority: The Unfortunate and Unintended Legacy of the Reformation and Spiritual Authority: The Optimistic Rationalism of the Enlightenment .

Course of Belief from the Reformation until Now

We have seen in previous sections that the Reformation's elevation of the Word of God encouraged the belief in autonomous spiritual discernment. Due to the growing accessibility of the Bible in the common language, every person could read and understand the Scriptures for themselves. They could therefore determine spiritual truth apart from church leaders. Ecclesiastical officials now had to demonstrate their adherance to the Scriptures in order to gain credibility from the common people since spiritual authority was conferred by the common people on to leaders found to be compliant to the truths and standards of the Bible.

While this was intended to preserve the integrity and purity in the church, the belief in autonomous spiritual discernment stimulated a great diversity of opinion. It unintentially led to competing beliefs among a multiplicity of sects.

The resulting arguments between sects led to a reliance on reason to settle disputes, with the Bible serving as the empirically objective database. Rational demonstration of logical points meant that spiritual authority now rested in successfully persuading common people to the truthfulness of particular positions.

As the course of modernity continued, sects continued to multiply, each having a rational justification of their particular truth. The modern mind eventually finds that logic alone leads to several valid positions. Rational argument loses its appeal. There are too many truth claims to investigate, too many competing belief systems, too many propositions to carefully sort out. Belief in rationality is eventually forsaken, and some form of subjectivism (feeling, experience, personal relationship) takes over.

We arrive at the postmodern person who refuses to accept any absolute claim (except that it is absolutely true that there are no absolute truths).

In short, the attempt by reformers to purify spiritual authority by ridding the established church of abuses has resulted in the emptying of all spiritual authority. The spiritual authority of church leaders today is often symbolic at best. They may occupy a spiritual position, but their functions and responsibilities are either bureaucratic (get the official stuff I don't want to do done) or facilitative (help me meet my own needs). Few church leaders are in positions to give direct spiritual commands and expect spiritual obedience. Conversely, few people willingly submit themselves to spiritual authority and readily accept direction from their spiritual superiors.


Elevation of the authority of the Bible and provision of it in the common language removed the intermediary of spiritual authority. Spiritual authority would now rest on conforming to the standards of the Bible. Competing understandings of the standards of Scripture emerged. Church leaders conforming to the standards of Scripture as they understood it sought to rationally persuade others to accept the validity of their distinctive claims, and thereby to accept their authority. These disputes caused doubt among people regarding the truth of the Bible and lack of confidence in finding certainty in it. As people were increasingly apathetic to the Scriptures and unwilling to invest energy in rational deliberations, church leaders lose all their grounds for spiritual authority. Claims to spiritual authority directly from God fails. Rational argument fails. So leaders find other means, sometimes emotionally-based, sometimes manipulative, to capture followers. The capriciousness of the people then becomes determinative of who is accepted as a spiritual authority. When people are offended or displeased, they immediately revoke their support of spiritual authority. Bereft of followers, leaders are left with nothing.

This leads us to understanding the significance of revivalism of Finney in the 19th Century, the appeal of Pentecostalism/the Charistmatic movement in the 20th Century and the recent applications of sociology to Church dynamics through Church Growth studies.

There are still other factors which have shaped spiritual authority in contemporary life. These are explored in later sections.

Comments, questions and contributions are welcome. Please see the guest book registry for your opportunity to speak out.

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This page created on July 12, 1996.
Most recent revision was August 27, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Gerardo Marti
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